Frank Hurley was an Australian photographer and adventurer, most famous for his series
of artful photographs documenting Shackleton’s epic ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17.
While the black-and-white images are well-known, a less familiar but equally stunning set
of his color pictures was recently put online by the State Library of New South Wales
in Sydney. I thought I’d share some of them here.
The color photographs were taken in 1915, the year the Endurance was crushed
by Antarctic ice in the Weddell Sea. They are among 120 glass plates in total that
Shackleton and Hurley chose to retrieve from the sinking ship. The captain and
photographer then smashed the remaining 400 plates to eliminate any temptation
of taking them along, recognizing that the party’s survival depended on meeting
space and weight limitations. The crew did endure their perilous 500-day ordeal,
as did the 120 photographic plates which they hauled by sledge and lifeboat, now
allowing us a glimpse into one of polar history’s most dramatic voyages.
Frank Hurley considered his color photos “amongst the most valuable records of the expedition.” He used an early polychrome process called Paget, which was patented
in 1912 in England and remained in use until the 1920s.
Paget used two plates, one a traditional black-and-white negative, the other a red,
green, and blue screen scored with a pattern of dots and lines. The negative was
contact-printed to made a transparency positive which was combined with the
matching color screen to achieve the final image. The process was eventually
eclipsed by the truer, richer colors captured by autochrome and later by Koda-
The Endurance was the second of Hurley’s three voyages to Antarctica. His first was
as official photographer to Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition of
1911-14 which brought him to Shackleton’s attention. In 1914, Hurley was signed
on to the Endurance venture where he continued raising exploration photography to
new levels through unique compositions and storytelling with both still and movie
His achievements are all the more impressive for the extreme conditions he braved.
He climbed masts, traversed splitting ice floes, and trekked in subfreezing temperatures
— often at night — to take his innovative photos. Lionel Greenstreet, the Endurance’s
First Officer, wrote of him: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera & would go anywhere
or do anything to get a picture.”
Getting the pictures was only part of the challenge; developing them on the ice-trapped
ship was another. The temperature in Hurley’s darkroom hovered around freezing, and
water for washing his plates was obtained by melting blocks of ice. He described the
difficulty in his diary: “Washing plates is a most troublesome operation, as the tank
must be kept warm or the plates become an enclosure in an ice block… Development
is a source of annoyance to the fingers which split & crack around the nails in a painful
In 1917, Hurley returned to South Georgia (pictured in the four photos above) for his
final Antarctic filming expedition, culminating in the 1919 motion picture “In the Grip
of the Polar Pack” featuring his footage of the Endurance expedition. The movie quickly
became a critical and popular success, and his still photography also gained a wide
audience as Shackleton featured it in his lecture tours.
Hurley’s original photography and footage more recently appeared in NOVA’s giant-screen
film Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure as well as Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance first
broadcast on NOVA in 2002. The Royal Geographical Society in London currently curates
Hurley’s original glass plate negatives and his original prints are held by the Scott Polar
Research Institute in Cambridge and the Macklin Collection in Aberdeen, Scotland.
A comprehensive selection of Hurley’s Paget color glass transparencies from the
Endurance expedition is showcased by the State Library of New South Wales online.